Tag: Trustee Act
In Tuesday’s blog, I scratched the surface of the recent battle between titans of Wall Street and a social media community over shares of GameStop, a brick-and-mortar video game retailer. The enormous volatility seen in GameStop’s share price, fluctuating between $20 and $350 in a matter of only a few weeks, led to some investors profiting handsomely, leaving others, including certain institutional investors, to foot the bill so to speak. Today’s blog discusses the obligations of a trustee to prudently invest trust capital and to generally avoid high-risk, high-reward strategies unless specifically instructed.
Section 27(1) of Ontario’s Trustee Act provides that a trustee investing trust assets “must exercise the care, skill, diligence and judgment that a prudent investor would in making investments” – colloquially known as the Prudent Investor rule. A further subsection of the Trustee Act, section 27(5), sets out a non-exhaustive list of criteria that a trustee is to consider when making investment decisions which include, among others, the expected total return on investment.
A savvy but risk-prone hypothetical trustee might have viewed the GameStop saga as an opportunity to earn significant returns for the benefit of the trust. Of course, had such a trustee “gotten in early” when the share price was still low and also correctly predicted the meteoric rise, the trust in question might well have enjoyed a capital return many times the size of their initial investment. Great!
However, the opposite consideration is relevant to any discussion of a trustee’s obligation as a prudent investor. What if the trustee took steps to invest in GameStop or any other volatile security, without reasonable justification for doing so, and suffers substantial losses? What recourse, if any, is available to the beneficiaries of a trust that suffers such losses?
In the ordinary course, a trustee may be personally liable for any investment losses as a result of imprudent investment decisions. Whether the trustee committed a breach of his fiduciary duty by choosing to invest in high-risk, high-reward securities is a nuanced question. In carrying out their obligation as a prudent investor, a trustee must consider several factors, including:
- The terms of the trust instrument or Will including any investment guidelines contemplated by the grantor or testator;
- The guidelines of any investment plan or strategy relied on by the trustee in making investment decisions, including any such plan prepared by a professional advisor; and
- The nature and extent of the investment made and the loss suffered.
A consideration of the factors above will determine whether a trustee’s actions constitute a breach of fiduciary duty. Hypothetically, a trustee may be directed by the terms of the governing instrument to invest a certain portion of the capital into specific types of assets, which could include volatile securities, with asset diversification as a main goal.
Although such investments might not ordinarily be viewed as “prudent”, section 27(9) of the Trustee Act provides that a trustee is not authorized to act in a manner that is inconsistent with the terms of the governing instrument. Although the trustee has some discretion in terms of the choice of investment, they may nonetheless be directed by the instrument to engage in risky transactions.
As such, the risk of personal liability to a trustee who was directed to invest a small share of the total capital of a trust into high-risk securities, as compared to a trustee who unilaterally decides to invest half of the trust capital into similar assets, will be considerably different. Provided the conduct of the trustee is in accordance with the directions and reasonable professional guidance offered to them, it is unlikely that a trustee will be personally liable for investment losses.
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There is so much in flux right now due to COVID-19. In the area of estates and trusts though, the obligations that an estate trustee owes to beneficiaries remains stable. During this time, estate trustees need to consider how best to administer an estate, and what they should be doing to limit future claims against them. The purpose of today’s blog is to consider the estate trustee’s duty to invest.
According to section 27(1) of the Trustee Act, “In investing trust property, a trustee must exercise the care, skill, diligence and judgment that a prudent investor would exercise in making investments”. This is often referred to as the prudent investor rule. Section 27(5) sets out certain criteria the trustee is required to consider in investing trust property, including, amongst other things, the general economic conditions and the possibility of inflation or deflation.
Given the current market fluctuations, estate trustees need to give invested trust property considered attention. While they cannot be expected to produce resounding returns for the beneficiaries, they can take steps to make sure their investments are prudent in the circumstances and avoid future claims from beneficiaries. These could include claims that the estate trustee failed to properly invest trust assets or that they failed to exercise their discretion.
The estate trustee should consider doing at least four things. First, they should review the terms of the will as to whether there are any specific investment requirements. Second, they should contact their investment advisor to obtain professional advice and share any relevant terms of the will. Third, the estate trustee should ask the investment advisor to put their advice/comments in writing and the estate trustee should hold on to this. Fourth, if the trustee is afforded some sort of discretion (for instance, considering the interests of capital versus income beneficiaries), the trustee should prepare a memorandum to themselves. The memorandum should set out the reasons why they reached the investment decision that they did and the factors they considered, which should include the section 27(5) criteria.
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In the recent case of Wilkinson v. The Estate of Linda Robinson, 2020 ONSC 91, the court rejected an argument that the 2-year limitation period set out in the Trustee Act applied to a claim against an estate for an interest in a real property on the basis of constructive trust. The court held that the 10-year limitation period set out in the Real Property Limitations Act applied.
In the case, the deceased died on July 2, 2015. The deceased died owning a real property that she and her common-law spouse lived in. In her will, the deceased allowed her spouse to live in the house for 2 years. The surviving spouse brought a claim that he was entitled to an equal interest in the house.
However, the claim was not commenced until September 25, 2017. The estate seized upon this delay and brought a motion to have the application dismissed on the basis of the passage of the 2-year limitation period set out in the Trustee Act.
The court dismissed this argument. It held that the appropriate limitation period was not the one set out in the Trustee Act, but the one set out in the Real Property Limitations Act.
The court quoted extensively from the Court of Appeal decision of McConnell v. Huxtable, 2014 ONCA 86. There, the court determined that a claim for a constructive trust in a common law relationship based on unjust enrichment was an action for recovery of land and therefore was governed by the Real Property Limitations Act. The applicable limitation period was therefore 10 years.
In a similar case, Rolston v. Rolston, 2016 ONSC 2937, the court refused to apply the 2-year limitation period to a claim for a remedial constructive trust brought 7 years after the date of death of the deceased. Again, the action was allowed to continue under the 10-year limitation period set out in the Real Property Limitations Act.
Ideally, any claim involving an estate should be brought within 2 years of the date of death of the deceased so as to avoid any limitation period issue. However, where this has not been done, it may still be possible to maintain a claim under certain circumstances.
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When most people reference a “limitation period” in Ontario, chances are that they are referencing the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act, 2002, which generally provides an individual with two years from the date on which a claim is “discovered” to commence a claim before it is statute barred. Although an individual is presumed under the Limitations Act to have “discovered” the claim on the date that the loss or injury occurred, if it can be shown that the individual did not “discover” the claim until some later date the limitation period will not begin to run until that later date, potentially extending the limitation period for the claim to be brought for many years beyond the second anniversary of the actual loss or damage.
Although the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act must be considered for situations in which an individual intends to commence a claim against someone who has died, individuals in such situations must also consider the much stricter limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act.
Section 38 of the Trustee Act imposes a hard two year limitation period from the date of death for any individual to commence a claim against a deceased individual in tort. Unlike the limitation period imposed by the Limitations Act, the limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act is not subject to the “discoverability” principle, but is rather a hard limitation period that expires two years from death regardless of whether the individual has actually yet to “discover” the claim. If an individual starts a claim against a deceased individual in tort more than two years after the deceased’s individual’s death it is statute barred by section 38 of the Trustee Act regardless of when the claim was “discovered”.
The non-applicability of the “discoverability” principle to the two year limitation period imposed by section 38 of the Trustee Act is confirmed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate, (2000) 47 O.R. (3d) 370, wherein the court states:
“As indicated earlier in these reasons, based on the language of the limitation provision, the discoverability principle does not apply to s. 38(3) of the Trustee Act. The effect of s. 38(3) is, in my view, that the state of actual or attributed knowledge of an injured person in a tort claim is not germane when a death has occurred. The only applicable limitation period is the two-year period found in s. 38(3) of the Trustee Act.” [emphasis added]
Although the Court of Appeal in Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate appears firm in their position that the court should not take when the claim was “discovered” into consideration when applying the limitation period from section 38 of the Trustee Act, it should be noted that in the recent decision of Estate of John Edward Graham v. Southlake Regional Health Centre, 2019 ONSC 392 (“Graham Estate“), the court allowed a claim to brought after the second anniversary of the deceased’s death citing “special circumstances”. Although the Graham Estate decision is from the lower court while the Waschkowski v. Hopkinson Estate decision is from the Court of Appeal, such that it is at least questionable whether it has established a new line of thinking or was correctly decided, the Graham Estate decision may suggest that the application of the limitation period from section 38 of the Trustee Act is not as harsh as it was once considered. More can be read about the Graham Estate decision in Garrett Horrocks’ previous blog found here.
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Estate litigation can be costly both financially and emotionally. As a result, there is often a strong incentive for parties to try to reach a negotiated settlement. Although entering into a settlement which resolves the estate litigation may appear straightforward from the outside, it may become more complicated if all potential financially interested parties are not signatories to the settlement. It is not uncommon in estate litigation for all beneficiaries of the estate to not actively participate in the litigation, leaving it to people such as the Estate Trustee or the other beneficiaries to defend a claim. As a settlement is in effect a contract between parties, if a settlement is reached which affects the interests of a non-signatory to the settlement can such a settlement bind the interests of the non-signatory?
I have previously blogged about section 48(2) of the Trustee Act, and an Estate Trustee’s ability to settle claims on behalf of the estate which can bind the interests of the beneficiaries. While section 48(2) would allow the Estate Trustee to bind the interests of all beneficiaries to the settlement, the Estate Trustee does so at their own potential liability, as it is possible that one or more of the beneficiaries may later challenge the decision of the Estate Trustee to enter into the settlement, potentially seeking damages against the Estate Trustee if they are of the position that the settlement was not reasonable or in the best interest of the estate. As a result of such a risk, it is not uncommon for an Estate Trustee to be hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of the estate in contentious situations, not wanting to potentially expose themselves to personal liability if one or more of the beneficiaries should later object to the terms of the settlement. If an Estate Trustee is hesitant to enter into a settlement on behalf of all beneficiaries, but all actively participating parties are otherwise in agreement with the settlement, is there a way to bind the interests of non-participating parties to the settlement?
The Rules of Civil Procedure provide the court with the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of parties who are not signatories under certain limited circumstances. This is done in accordance with rule 7.08 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows the court to approve a settlement on behalf of a party who themselves cannot consent to the settlement on account of being under a legal disability (i.e. a minor). Perhaps importantly however, the court only has the authority under rule 7.08 to “approve” a settlement on behalf of a party under a legal disability, and rule 7.08 is not available in circumstances where the non-signatory is fully capable.
The Rules of Civil Procedure do not otherwise appear to provide any mechanism by which a settlement can be approved on behalf of a party who is not under a legal disability. As a result, if the non-signatory who you are you attempting to bind to the settlement is not under a legal disability, the court likely does not have the authority to “approve” the settlement on their behalf under the Rules of Civil Procedure.
Although the court likely does not have the ability to “approve” a settlement on behalf of an individual who is not under a legal disability in accordance with the Rules of Civil Procedure, this does not necessarily mean that there are no other ways to potentially bind the individual to a settlement. One potential solution may be to seek an Order “in accordance” with the terms of the settlement on notice to all interested parties. Should the court issue such an Order, which in effect repeats the terms of the settlement but as an Order of the court, the non-signatories would arguably then be bound to the terms of the settlement as it would now be in the form of an Order of the court.
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Section 38 of Ontario’s Trustee Act provides that an estate trustee may commence or maintain, on behalf of a Deceased individual, an action in tort that could otherwise have been commenced by that individual. As discussed in related blogs on this section, such actions are ordinarily subject to a stricter limitation period than that of other civil claims.
In typical civil claims, Ontario’s Limitations Act imports a two-year limitation period which begins to run as of the date the cause of action was discovered. The limitation period under the Trustee Act, however, begins to run as of the Deceased’s date of death and is not subject to this principle of discoverability, unless the Plaintiff can satisfy the Doctrine of Special Circumstances. The decision in Graham Estate v Southlake Regional Health Centre recently contextualized this Doctrine and, in so doing, suggests that the principle of discoverability will not always be dispensed with.
In May 2008, the Deceased in Graham Estate underwent a botched surgical procedure that ultimately gave rise to a claim in medical negligence. The Deceased subsequently died in February 2009, and a claim was commenced by the Deceased’s Estate in May 2010, well within the two-year limitation period under section 38(3).
As part of this initial claim, the Estate obtained disclosure of relevant medical records relating to the operation. In or about 2015, more than four years after the limitation period had expired, counsel for the Estate subsequently received an additional unprompted cache of records that had not been previously disclosed. This new set of records gave rise to a claim against a party who was not a party to the existing litigation.
In February 2017, the Estate subsequently brought a motion seeking to add the Proposed Defendant as a party to the litigation. At issue in this decision was whether the Estate was out of time as a result of the strict operation of section 38(3) of the Trustee Act. The Court ultimately held that the Estate ought to succeed on the basis of the Doctrine of Special Circumstances.
As the claim against the Proposed Defendant was, on its face, out of time, the Estate argued that the Doctrine of Special Circumstances ought to apply. This Doctrine is comprised of a two-step test to be satisfied by the Plaintiff:
- The Plaintiff must rebut the presumption of prejudice that would result to the party to be added; and
- The Plaintiff must satisfy the Court that special circumstances justify the addition of that party.
At the outset, the Court held that the loss of a limitation defence immediately gave rise to a presumption of prejudice in favour of the Proposed Defendant. However, the Estate identified a number of factors that operated to rebut the presumption of prejudice, notably:
- The claims to be made against the Proposed Defendant were identical to those already commenced against the existing Defendants;
- The action against the Proposed Defendant was tenable in law; and
- There would be no procedural unfairness to the Proposed Defendant if he were added as a party, as no trial date had been set and he would have sufficient time to prepare a defence.
The Court then considered whether there were any equitable special circumstances that merited the addition of the Proposed Defendant as a party. As above, the Court held that there were, but in so doing, in effect considered factors not unlike the discoverability principle.
Chiefly, the Court noted that the Proposed Defendant’s role in the circumstances giving rise to the initial negligence claim had not become apparent until the limitation period had already expired. The Court found that the Estate had made efforts to obtained the relevant records well within the limitation period, and that the records implicating the Proposed Defendant had erroneously been omitted. The Court held that this was not a case in which the Estate was “handicapped by its own inaction.”
While section 38(3) of the Trustee Act on its face imports a strict limitation period, the Graham Estate decision nonetheless suggests that the courts will consider discoverability, among other factors. That said, this analysis is only engaged if the presumption of prejudice is rebutted.
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Today on Hull on Estates, Paul Trudelle and Kira Domratchev discuss the decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Levesque v Crampton Estate, 2017 ONCA 455, which dealt with the question of whether a crossclaim against the Estate of Father Dale Crampton was time-barred by s. 38 (3) of the Trustee Act.
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Today on Hull on Estates, Ian M. Hull and Doreen So discuss the recent Court of Appeal decision in Levesque v. Crampton Estate, 2017 ONCA 455, and the two-year, from death, limitation in section 38 of the Trustee Act.
If an estate trustee is not fulfilling their duties and is not acting in the best interests of the estate, it is possible to commence an application for removal.
When seeking to remove an estate trustee in Ontario, anyone with a financial interest in an estate can apply to have an executor passed over or removed, pursuant to s. 37(3) of the Trustee Act. Rule 14.05(3)(c) of the Rules of Civil Procedure, allow an application to be commenced for the purpose of “the removal or replacement of one or more executors, administrators or trustees, or the fixing of their compensation.” The applicable principles for the removal of an executor have been established in Letterstedt v Boers (1884), 9 App Cas 271 (South Africa PC) and have been summarized in Johnston v Lanka Estate, 2010 ONSC 4124:
- The court will not lightly interfere with the testator’s choice of estate trustee;
- Clear evidence of necessity for removal is required;
- The court’s main consideration is the welfare of the beneficiaries; and
- The estate trustee’s acts or omissions must be of such a nature as to endanger the administration of the estate/trust.
A recent British Columbia Court of Appeal decision, Al-Sabah v Al-Sabah, 2016 BCCA 365, upheld the removal of an estate trustee of an estate on the basis that she did not comply with the notice provisions of the Wills, Estates and Succession Act, and was not acting in the best interests of the estate.
In this case, the deceased died in 2003, intestate, and left 15 beneficiaries, including his two sons, two wives, and seven daughters. One of his daughters was the appellant and the estate trustee of the estate. The respondents on the appeal comprised 79% of the beneficiaries to the estate.
Upon the death of Mr. Al-Sabah, estate litigation was commenced across several countries, as he had held property in many different locations. The appointment of the estate trustee by British Columbia was successful, however, the appellant had also applied to be the estate trustee of the estate in London, and had her position revoked, and she commenced at least 4 actions in Kuwait against other beneficiaries, all of which were unsuccessful.
In chambers, the estate trustee was removed, and appealed that ruling. On appeal, it was upheld that the estate trustee did not exercise reasonable diligence in providing notice to the other beneficiaries of her intention to apply for the position, and that she failed to disclose relevant information to the beneficiaries.
The British Columbia Wills, Estates and Succession Act section 121, and the British Columbia Supreme Court Rules establish the requirements for notice of the beneficiaries. It was established that the estate trustee did not provide notice to the proper addresses required by the rules, as the addresses to which she forwarded notices were almost all incorrect. The judge also noted that the application was made amidst “hotly contested” and “acrimonious” estate litigation, and that when she applied for her grant of administration, she did not disclose that there was significant litigation surrounding the estate in other countries.
If this case were to have taken place in Ontario, it is likely that the Ontario courts may have come to the same decision as the British Columbia court, in applying the principles as established in Letterstedt v Boers. The court would not have been interfering with the testator’s choice of estate trustee as he died intestate, and it is clear that the removal was required due to her dishonesty and her lack of consideration of the welfare of the beneficiaries, thereby endangering the administration of the estate.
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The Ontario Superior Court recently considered the application of section 38 of the Trustee Act in John C. Chaplin v. First Associates Investments Inc. et al and Abrahamovitz v Berens.
Section 38(1) of the Trustee Act states:
Except in cases of libel and slander, the executor or administrator of any deceased person may maintain an action for all torts or injuries to the person or to the property of the deceased in the same manner and with the same rights and remedies as the deceased would, if living, have been entitled to do, and the damages when recovered shall form part of the personal estate of the deceased; but if death results from such injuries no damages shall be allowed for the death or for the loss of the expectation of life, but this proviso is not in derogation of any rights conferred by Part V of the Family Law Act.
In Bonaparte v. Canada (Attorney General), the Court held that in considering whether a wrong falls within the ambit of s38(1), “the focus is not upon the form of the action but whether the alleged wrong constitutes an injury to the person.” The courts have held that this section applies to claims in tort, contract, and breach of fiduciary duty.
In John C. Chaplin, an Estate commenced an action against an investment advisor for making speculative investments, which resulted in losses. In this case, the Court seems to expand the scope of s. 38(1) further, to include actions for purely economic loss, stating:
The property of the deceased, being her money, was allegedly destroyed in value due to the wrongful acts of Mr. Monaghan. Black’s Law Dictionary includes in the definition of “injury” the “violation of another’s legal right, for which the law provides a remedy; a wrong or injustice” and “any harm or damage”. That is broad enough to include the claims here for damages arising from the actions of Mr. Monaghan who was a registered investment advisor with First Associates.
The court also considered the limitation period in section 38(3) of the Trustee Act, which states:
An action under this section shall not be brought after the expiration of two years from the death of the deceased.
The Court held that this limitation period is strict and that the discoverability rule does not apply. This limitation period applies both to claims by and against the estate, under s. 38(2). Moreover, in Abrahamovitz v Berens the Court held that the section does not extend or toll a limitation period created by the Limitations Act, but simply passes the right to commence an action from the deceased to the personal representative if the cause of action arose before death.
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